Eisenberg: Slay the Wide Receiver Dragon, Become a Hero for Life


There are many ways for Eric DeCosta to quell any doubts about his ability to handle the job Ozzie Newsome held for 23 years.

Of those many ways to please and appease, one stands out for its prominence, apparent degree of difficulty and importance. You know what I'm talking about, right?

The wide receiver position has been an enduring source of frustration for the Ravens. If DeCosta could somehow slay that dragon in his first year as general manager, he'd be a hero for life. Baltimore fans might throw him a parade.

To be clear, the Ravens haven't gone entirely without effective receivers since 1996. Twelve times, one of their wideouts has surpassed 1,000 receiving yards in a season. Ten times, a Baltimore wide receiver has caught at least 70 passes in a season.

But let's not sugarcoat things. The Ravens have never sent a wide receiver to the Pro Bowl. None of their first-round draft picks at the position have lived up to expectations. Outside of Torrey Smith, their other draft picks haven't left identifiable marks.

The Ravens have ranked in the top 10 in passing just once since 1998, a trend that reflects several nettlesome truths, among them, inevitably, the caliber of the receivers.

Over the years, the Ravens have signed a succession of veteran free agents in hopes of improving the situation. Derrick Mason was a big success; he's responsible for fully one-third of the franchise's 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Anquan Boldin and Steve Smith Sr. also fared well. Mike Wallace surpassed 1,000 yards in 2016.

But their recent signings haven't gone as well, prompting the charge that the Ravens are applying Band-aids rather than finding long-term fixes. When they released Michael Crabtree this week, reprising what they did with Jeremy Maclin a year earlier, the consensus reaction was, "Here we go again. Another rebuild at receiver."

Is that accurate? I'm not so sure. (See below.) But regardless, DeCosta is now trying to solve the riddle, and there'll be plenty of scrutiny.

Speaking this week at the NFL Combine, he said he wanted young receivers who could develop chemistry with Lamar Jackson. I say hear-hear. Signing yet another thirty-ish "savior" doesn't sound so appealing after the Maclin and Crabtree experiences. You don't have to keep tapping that market if you land a young talent who'll be around awhile.

With that in mind, I'd be shocked if the Ravens didn't draft a wide receiver somewhere in the first three rounds this year. That's where you find plug-and-play guys, and no doubt, the Ravens need one.

A handful of names are circulating, but my two cents, with the Ravens slated to pick No. 22 overall, they could find a contributor just as easily in the second or third rounds as the first.

All that matters in the end is whether he can play. That's DeCosta's best chance to start solving the riddle.

As for the rest of the receiving corps, Willie Snead, 26, will return after leading the team with 62 receptions out of the slot in 2018. His toughness and playmaking could make him a potential contract extension option.

Also back are Chris Moore, Jordan Lasley and Jaleel Scott, all of whom meet the criteria of being young. But Moore has just 44 career catches, and Lasley and Scott didn't play at all as rookies. It remains to be seen whether they can consistently contribute.

I think we might occasionally see tight ends Mark Andrews and Hayden Hurst line up outside; both possess the athleticism.

As for the free agent market, as noted, I've kind of had my fill. Golden Tate is available. You might be able to talk me into that. But I'd be fine with the Ravens re-signing John Brown instead.

Yes, his production declined last season after Jackson replaced Joe Flacco, but the Ravens believe Jackson will be a better passer in 2019, which means they'll need a home run hitter at receiver. Brown is certainly that. He's also affordable, a hard worker and has expressed interest in returning.

If Brown returns (DeCosta effusively praised him this week), it wouldn't be a major rebuild at receiver so much as a tweak, adding a high draft pick. The result would be the younger group DeCosta wants (Brown, 28, would be the elder statesmen) and an athletic group not lacking in upside potential as it seeks to solve a riddle and possibly make a hero out of a rookie GM.

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